Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, and Olivia Rodrigo are just a few artists that have found success through TikTok, and enter the mainstream music scene allowing their music to reach millions of users every day. While TikTok was fundamentally designed to facilitate lip-syncing and dancing interactions, many artists have capitalized on its inherent features to promote their songs. What is in TikTok’s nature that is so enticing and revolutionary for both users and artists? Have artists cracked the code to TikTok’s virality, and how would that impact the music industry, where songs might begin to cater to TikTok’s mechanisms?
The you-didn’t-see-it-coming TikTok achievements
Lil Nas X and his breakout track “Old Town Road” spent 19 weeks on the Billboard Top 100 chart and were nominated for 6 Grammy awards in 2019. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” was nominated for Record of the Year in the same year. Doja Cat, known for her bubble-gum hit “Say So,” was also nominated for Best New Artist in 2020 and peaked at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Megan Thee Stallion and her megahit “Savage” accumulated won 3 Grammy awards (Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Performance) in 2021. Tracks such as “Rockstar” (by Roddy Rich and Da Baby) and “Don’t Start Now” (by Dua Lipa) were also nominated at the 2020 Grammys. Olivia Rodrigo’s solemnly addictive track “driver’s license,” brought her overnight fame, where it was positioned at number 1 on the Billboard charts.
Magic doesn’t exist, but on TikTok, it does.
What do they all have in common? Yes, you guessed it. These earworms and their artists all started on TikTok, where their achievements have been nothing but impressive. Especially in 2020, the year where everyone marched into and migrated to the platform out of pandemic boredom did the TikTok music scene truly explode into the mainstream, creating a fascinating boom of TikTok-native A-listers. Magic doesn’t exist, but on TikTok, it does.
The Viral Music Wonderland
But to learn about how artists’ popularity can skyrocket through TikTok, we need to dissect the app. Throwback to 2017, when TikTok’s Chinese parent, ByteDance, bought out Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app. In fundamental ways, TikTok was purposed to facilitate lip-syncing and dancing interactions (duet function) where one clip, trend, or challenge traverses any boundary. Music has been and will always be at the platform’s core, with shareability, reusability (the number of users that have used a song to create their videos), and virality as the primary metrics of success. As a song is repurposed and remixed millions or even billions of times with other users being constantly exposed to that exact song, it will eventually grow on them, even if it is “attached to a mostly unrelated trend.” Musical artists and producers struck gold with this new kind of exposure because “you can hear the same song in five different videos in five minutes,” something unachievable through the Top 40 radio.
TikTok’s success is so invasive that it has spilled over to actual music platforms like Apple Music and Spotify, as well as the music industry itself. TikTok-focused playlists on Spotify have thousands or millions of followers, and on YouTube, many would point out that they found songs on TikTok. And because anyone can become a star overnight on TikTok, a “continuous loop between TikTok, streaming services and major labels” is established. Labels such as Sony, Warner, and Universal Music Group (home to Jason Derulo and Megan Thee Stallion) have closely collaborated with the platform. This give-and-take relationship is best summed up by The Ringer: “Labels provide the hits, TikTok provides the virality, and streaming services provide the accessible content.”
Unlocking the Pandora’s Box of Under-the-radar Artists
As the TikTok algorithm doesn’t necessarily favor the big players or renowned artists, it provides a fairer playground for undiscovered artists to organically rise to fame. And this also goes the other way, where artists are eager to get on TikTok to reach and connect with its wide audiences. According to The Ringer, “This is what TikTok aims to be: a place where anyone can be a star, at any moment.” The British singer Yungblud shares this sentiment with Vice: “TikTok can be punk as f**k. It’s kids expressing themselves, doing mad creative stuff, so it allows artists who aren’t following a formula, or aren’t an industry darling, to get discovered.” A TikTok user expresses a similar view: “When using TikTok, I find a lot of artists and genres of music that I normally wouldn’t listen to.”
As a platform, TikTok offers free real estate for artists to receive public recognition, where they are free from the control of the bigshots’ taste and algorithmic decisions of streaming services’ personalized curations.
This has a tremendous impact on the mainstream pop scene as we know it. In his interview with NPR, the LA Times music critic Mikael Wood asserts that TikTok has enabled “weird songs to get into the system that maybe would not have gotten a serious look at Top 40.” As a platform, TikTok offers free real estate for artists to receive public recognition, where they are free from the control of the bigshots’ taste and algorithmic decisions of streaming services’ personalized curations. It’s also the Garden of Eden for niche artists and genres to propel and open up many once-in-a-lifetime prospects in their careers. In 2020, 70 artists who went viral on TikTok landed record deals with major labels. Lil Nas X signed with Columbia Records only four months after his posting of “Old Town Road” in February 2019, and his label-mate Arizona Zervas (known for his megahit “Roxanne”) also peaked at number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Cracking the TikTok Code
Since TikTok songs’ rise to popularity remains quite cryptic and random, many artists have attempted to replicate elements of TikTok hits with the hopes that one day, it will be them standing on the pedestal. Thus, a large portion of TikTok songs has started to become more and more formulaic, “bouncy,” and “simple,” as these songs are mostly used for dancing or repurposed into different contexts. Although there is no real guarantee for artists to produce a viral hit, there are considerable overlaps between popular TikTok songs, according to an extensive analysis of 250 TikTok-famous tracks. Energy and danceability rank first, with 198/250 songs having a BPM over 100. Lyrics, especially funny or relatable ones, also play a role, as Lil Nas X purposely included some funny lines in “Old Town Road.”
Songs that are TikTok-ready are no longer uncommon, as both newcomers and well-known mainstream artists jumped on this bandwagon. Take Drake’s “Tootsie Slide” for example; the lyrics explicitly contain the instructions for the Tootsie dance challenge: “Right foot up, left foot slide; Left foot up, right foot slide.” Justin Bieber fueled a similar trend of creating his compilation of users dancing to “Yummy,” only to have the song accused by music critics to be “designed purely to go viral on TikTok.” Dua Lipa, whose songs have found overwhelming success on the platform, also capitalized on this feature, where she asked her fans to make creative videos with her single “Levitating.” And if you are avid Kpop stan, you would already know that literally every single dance track song will be accompanied by a TikTok challenge.
As TikTok capitalizes on its 15-second rule, songs that want to succeed on the platform must be able to condense into tiny snippets. Therefore, this rule of thumb has prompted many artists to create shorter songs with catchy choruses or verses that can be precisely divided. For instance, the song “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion can be encapsulated in just a few words: “I’m a savage/ Classy, bougie, ratchet/ Sassy, moody, nasty.” Thus, with this trajectory and the fact that our attention span continues to decline, the future of no one “sitting down and listening to a four-minute song” might not be entirely fiction.
The Era of Saturated Music
While these trends are not necessarily too concerning, we have begun to see signs of certain TikTok songs following generic sounds and similar patterns to target the users. Catchiness and danceability are major determinants of the success of any song, but to make them the definitive factors over melody, lyrics, or meaning will unarguably offset and water down the music industry. This makes way for unsustainable growth for artists whose careers took off from TikTok and potentially sets up for a “generation of one-hit wonders,” as observed by music critic Mikael Wood. He continued: “You’ve got folks who made a really cool song that resonated with people, […] but they haven’t developed the kind of grassroots following that will actually see them through when their next song isn’t maybe a viral smash.” TikTok music is fun, groovy, and shareable, but its design should not be an excuse for the diminishing quality. A good song can be from TikTok, but not all TikTok songs will be good.
Cover: Haulix Daily
Edited by: Yili Char